When Do I Really Need to Take My Car to the Shop?

Don't freak out the next time a dash light comes on.

Nobody wants to take their vehicle in for repairs or maintenance more often than they actually need to. But having a dashboard light switch on can be scary if you’re not sure what it means.

Luckily, it doesn’t have to be. You have lots of resources available to you — namely your car’s user manual — that can help you understand what’s an emergency and what can wait.

Does the manual matter?

Simply: yes. The manual is the guide to your car. It should be the go-to when you have a question about your vehicle.

While lots of information is available online, it’s not all vehicle-specific. The manual is your source for information specific to your vehicle — the make, model and year. Cars can change pretty dramatically year over year, so you want information accurate to your car.

What you’ll find inside

The type of oil you need

If you’ve ever tried to purchase your own engine oil, you were probably at least a little overwhelmed. There are so many options. There are different types — organic, semi-synthetic and full synthetic — as well as different viscosities.

Checking your owner’s manual will tell you exactly what type your car was meant to run on.

Maintenance schedule

Ever wonder whether you’re being talked into maintenance you don’t need? Your owner’s manual will clearly break down the vehicle manufacturer’s recommended maintenance schedule. It will tell you recommended time intervals for new filters, fluids and even things like timing belts and spark plugs.

Dash light meanings

Have you ever had a light pop up on your dash and you had no idea what it meant? The owner’s manual has your back. It explains each light in easy-to-understand terms. Here’s a primer:

Tire pressure light

Normally this light goes off for one of three reasons:

1. Your tire pressure is low. This can happen because of fluctuations in air pressure outside or because your tire picked up a nail. Put some air in your tire and the light should turn off in five to 10 miles of driving in most vehicles. If the light comes back on, get your tire checked out, because there might be a slow leak.

2. Your tires are overinflated. Yes, surprise! If you put too much air in your tires — which is very unsafe — your tire pressure light should come on. Checking your tire pressure with a tire gauge is fairly straightforward. Let some air out if it’s overinflated.

3. Your tire pressure monitor is broken. If this is the case, check your tire pressure regularly by hand.

Oil change/maintenance needed light

This light coming on is a reminder that your oil change is due. Make sure to get your oil changes done per the maintenance schedule in your owner’s manual.

Check engine light

This light can come on for hundreds of different reasons. One thing is for certain: If the light is flashing, stop driving and get your vehicle towed. Driving with a flashing check engine light can cause catastrophic damage.

The check engine light is your indicator that something is wrong with an electrical part of your car. In most cars, it won’t come on for brake problems or suspension issues.

Turning this light off won’t work for long, as it will reset as you drive. Take the vehicle in to get diagnosed to determine if it’s something you need to take care of right away.

Oil pressure light

If this light comes on, get it checked out right away. It could mean a number of different things, but it often comes on when the oil in a car is really low. It could mean your vehicle is burning oil or that you have a major oil leak.

Oil pressure is necessary for proper engine functioning. The oil pressure light should not simply be turned off without a check of what’s going on under the hood.

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When is maintenance a must?

You should take your vehicle in for regular oil change services. If you get the maintenance and repairs done during your regularly scheduled appointment, you can save yourself time and a trip to the shop by taking care of things right away.

There are two standard intervals for oil changes:

  • Every three months or 3,000 miles. This is the interval for vehicles that use regular organic oil. This means bringing your vehicle in for maintenance four times a year.
  • Every six months or 6,000 miles. This is the standard interval for most newer vehicles that take synthetic oil.

These are some common problems that should be checked out by a mechanic right away:

1. Brakes are squeaking when stopping or the brake pedal feels low when you are stopping. Brakes are no joking matter and should be handled immediately. Not only is this for your safety, it’s also for your pocketbook. Brakes can quickly go from a simple job to an expensive repair.

An overheated vehicle. pbs rewire living carCredit: Adobe
If your car is overheating, stop driving it immediately. Get it towed to a mechanic.

2. Flashing check engine light. As mentioned above, a flashing check engine light means serious damage is happening to your engine. The less you drive it and the sooner it gets into the shop, the less money you are going to spend overall.

3. Your vehicle cuts off while driving. Often folks will get their car jump-started in this situation and keep driving. Here’s the thing: the battery is not meant to keep your vehicle running. That’s the alternator’s job. If your car cuts off, one of the most common reasons is a bad alternator. It will drive temporarily until it uncharges the battery and then you are back to square one. Get the car checked out right away so you don’t end up stranded.

4. Your car is overheating. If your car is overheating, stop driving it. Get a tow and get the vehicle checked out.

You got this

Figuring out your vehicle can be a bit of a puzzle. Using your owner’s manual as a guidebook will help you learn the best ways to take care of it.

I can’t stress enough how important it is to listen and feel how your car is driving. You are the driver. If you pay attention, you can feel when something is going wrong with your vehicle. If you like listening to loud music while driving, commit to driving for five minutes once a week with the music off so you can hear your car.

If something feels wrong, go get it checked out. Many car repairs become super expensive because they aren’t handled at the outset of the problem.

Chaya Milchtein

Chaya Milchtein is the driving force behind Mechanic Shop Femme. As an automotive educator, speaker and writer, she’s made it her life’s mission to educate women and LGBT people about their cars. Her website also highlights her work on her other passion: empowering women to live their best lives in the bodies they have, through fashion and modeling. Chaya’s work has been featured in the Chicago Tribune, Go Magazine, and others. She lives with her partner and tortoise in Wisconsin.